Interview: Hilal Isler

What is vulnerability to you?
To be human is to be vulnerable.

What vulnerability feels like to you?
Honestly? It feels pretty scary. There’s a question American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron likes to pose: Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear? I think of that often. I tell myself to grow up, to not be afraid, and it usually helps.

Why are you practicing vulnerability?
Because I want to keep my eyes, my mind, and my heart open. I don’t want to be caught in a net of triviality. I want to keep opening myself up to myself, to keep growing the capacity I have to love others, to attend fully, honestly, to whatever a particular day, a particular moment brings me. I want to keep up and grow an enthusiasm for life. And practicing vulnerability is a good way, I think, to start to do that work.

What’s your response to a violation of you being vulnerable?
I try to be firmer about boundaries.

Was vulnerability encouraged growing up?
Ooh, this is a tough one. Yes and no, I think. My parents were both college professors. My dad was a geophysicist who studied plate tectonics and mantle convection and things like that, and so his brain, the way he interprets the world has always been very rooted in facts and figures. And my mother was a chemical engineer so her approach was largely similar. They were nerds together. They enjoyed being nerds.

They were naturally curious and inquisitive and I grew up watching them debate various theories and ideas and play at the intersection of things, of science and God. Richard Feynman was big in our house, for instance. Sufi mystics. Stuff like that. And there wasn’t much patience, much tolerance for feelings in their world.

When you’re asking these big questions and trying to figure things out on this grand, this cosmic level, you can’t be bothered with “what you said hurt my feelings” or “I need to be validated by you” or insecurities or whatever else. Gossip. All of that was dismissed, seen as street level and petty and silly. Even as a six-year-old, I got that message very clearly and repeatedly. So I learned by seeing them, what sorts of things I should devote myself to, and what wasn’t important. I learned I shouldn’t be mentally weak, or frivolous, or concerned with small things.

But having said that, my parents were also very aware and sensitive to the fact that I was different from what they were, that I had come out as this weird alien creäture who had a lot of emotions. I was an empath, I guess you could say.

I lived in this interior world of my design. Fueled by a lot of fantasy and feeling. Folklore. Lots and lots of stories. Poetry. Language. Languages. And they eventually learned how to support me in that, to try to understand I was experiencing the world a bit differently, that I was pulled to different things. I was sensitive. I was vulnerable in a way they perhaps weren’t, I guess you could say.

Who is supportive of vulnerability in your family?
Oh Jeez. I don’t know. My mom more than my dad, for sure. I’m an only child. I had a pair of pet turtles for a couple of years. They were pretty supportive. Really great listeners.

Any mentors along the way?
My mom. Definitely my mom. Foremost and fiercely and forever my mom. As a student, Dr. Ritty Lukose walked me through a lot of things, emotionally, intellectually. I’m indebted to her. My former bosses, for sure: foremost among them Dr. Erika Lee, Dr. Amy Johnson, Dr. Leroy Nunery. My dear advisor, Dr. Marvin Lazerson.

I have two godmothers, my mom’s best friends, Dr. Emine Caner-Saltik, and Dr. Yildiz Bayazitoglu. They have helped me immeasurably. They are mighty, mighty women.

These are my teachers, and they’re whip-smart, but maybe even more importantly, they are filled with grace and compassion and integrity, and a quality of deep, sincere empathy. This is turning into an Oscar acceptance speech. What was the question again? I’d also like to thank Jesus, my pet parakeet, and the William Morris Agency.

By the way, I teach a 7-day free writing class, click to learn more.